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Proselytizing the Lonely

By Joseph R. Palmore

"WERE students here and are just walking around telling people about Christian activities on campus," said a jean jacket-clad man as he approached me one night last week. "Do you go to school at Harvard?"

When I said yes, the man in the jean jacket said he and his friend were students at the Kennedy School. "Our church is having a big rally Sunday. About 700 or 800 students are going to be there. We just wanted to..."

"What church are you with?"

"Oh, the Boston Church of Christ."

"Sorry, I'm busy Sunday," I said over my shoulder as I quickly walked away.

"Will you be going to church on Sunday?" one of the K-school students called after me.

"I don't know."

"Thank you for your time," he said sarcastically.

Five minutes later, as a friend and I walked down Prescott Street toward Memorial Hall, we passed the two, who were deep in conversation with another victim.

Originally, I was surprised that the Boston Church of Christ--infamous for its aggressive and manipulative brand of proselytizing--was still actively searching for converts on campus. Along with every other undergraduate at Harvard, I had received, in my bulging registration packet, a United Ministries pamphlet warning of the dangers of "destructive" religious groups. And my proctor made a special point of discussing the methods used by the Boston Church of Christ at one of those endless study breaks every freshman endures.

Administrators at Harvard and other area schools expressed their concern about aggressive proselytizing, and Boston University went so far as to ban members of the group from recruiting on the BU campus.

BUT here stood those two men telling me about a rally the Boston Church of Christ was holding Sunday. The church must be having success at Harvard, I thought, or they would have shifted their operations elsewhere.

Al Baird, an elder in the church, says the membership of the Harvard congregation, and those at all area schools, is growing. He attributes this increasing number of converts to "the excitement the individuals have about their faith in Jesus and their eagerness to share it."

"I think everyone has a need for God in their life--I don't think everyone knows it," Baird says.

Baird says the Church does not release the exact number of members in any one congregation, but in October the Harvard congregation had 30 members, one-half of whom had joined the flock within the last year.

The persistence and growth of the Boston Church of Christ should be an issue of concern and vigilance to every member of the Harvard community. The church has been known to harass potential converts with repeated calls and visits to student dorms--practices which violate an individual's right to privacy.

But the church's success reflects a more pressing concern for Harvard. The church offers converts friendship and comfort in exchange for unblinking devotion, but implicitly threatens to withdraw all support if one leaves the group. Being trapped in this kind of web can isolate converts and prevent them from leaving the church.

But it is too easy to pin the whole problem of destructive religious groups on the groups themselves. This is the same kind of faulty logic which says the entire drug problem can be blamed on Manuel Noriega and local narcotics thugs. The Boston Church of Christ, and other groups like it, meet a very tangible need among students--a desire for assurance and friendship on what can be a cold and friendless campus.

I don't know it Harvard, with its thousands of students and staff, will ever be able to adequately fulfill the need for community among students who fall prey to cult groups. But as long as that need goes unfullfilled through more conventional channels, Harvard will continue to be a fertile hunting ground for the Bible-toting suppliers of instant friendship and easy answers.

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